Best Of The Super Juniors: New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Craziest Tournament, And Why It’s Dividing Wrestling Fans

If you’re on any social-media platform at all, you probably noticed a certain wrestling match getting discussed a lot over the weekend. The match in question is a one-on-one bout from New Japan Pro Wrestling between Ricochet and Will Ospreay, and we’ve already delved into it a bit.

What would normally be a high-profile yet routine match for NJPW ended up generating something of a firestorm among elitist wrestling fans and casual viewers alike. So, now that your Facebook feed is clogged with well-meaning uncles asking if this is “still that stuff you watched when you were a kid,” now might be the perfect time to contextualize all this. Lost in the shuffle of all the discussion is the setting for the Ricochet/Ospreay match… the annual Best of the Super Juniors tournament. Let’s take a closer look.

What is Best of the Super Juniors?

Best of the Super Juniors is the yearly tournament put on by New Japan Pro Wrestling to showcase their junior heavyweight wrestlers. Now in its 23rd year, past winners have included Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Tiger Mask, Jushin “Thunder” Liger, and Finn Balor. In its current format, competitors are split into two groups and must face each other competitor, round-robin style. Points are awarded for victories, and the winners of each group face off in a final match to determine the winner. The overall victor then usually gets a shot at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship.

So, is this basically the G1 Climax for junior heavyweights?

Yeah, that’s the right idea. G1 is more of a heavyweight tournament, although junior heavyweights like Kota Ibushi and Jushin Liger have occasionally stepped up to the challenge.

Who are the power players this year?

The man with the target on his back right now is the current IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion, KUSHIDA. After Jushin Liger announced that he was most likely in the final stage of his legendary career, KUSHIDA successfully defended the title at Wrestling Dontaku in May against Liger, his boyhood hero. Saying that he was hereby “stopping the clock” on Liger’s retirement plans, KUSHIDA has been playing the role of fighting champion ever since. It’s a role he’ll have to get used to, because the entire Best of the Super Juniors field is coming for him. That’s 15 potential challengers, including reDRagon (Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish), Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero and Beretta), a member of the Bullet Club (Chase Owens), a member of Los Ingobernables (BUSHI), and the co-booker of New Japan himself (Gedo).

As well as Ricochet and Will Ospreay, right?

Correct. Ospreay is hellbent on getting another title shot after coming up short in April, and Ricochet is looking to become a two-time Best of the Super Juniors winner. They’re two of the best high-flyers in the world, and in what was essentially a qualifying match, they ended up accidentally setting the wrestling world on fire.

So, is the hype real? They must have done something big to get this kind of response, right?

I can answer this question, but it’s not going to be a simple matter. If you’re looking for an easy-to-swallow Buzzfeedian “17 Reasons Why Wrestling Is Cool Again” response, I can’t help you. There are multiple sides to why this match is simultaneously the best and worst thing to ever happen in a wrestling ring. If you’re still with me at this point, let’s play devil’s advocate.

First of all, let’s acknowledge one thing: People are talking about pro wrestling and no one had to die in order for that to happen. That’s a blessing in 2016. My sister couldn’t pick Stone Cold Steve Austin out of a police lineup, and she’s sending me links to Grantland writers tweeting that they need to start watching wrestling again. That’s huge. People with no prior knowledge of wrestling are seeing GIFs of honest-to-God Japanese puroresu and it’s making them pay attention. Consider how much the sphere of influence has opened up due to this one match. That’s significant, and we shouldn’t be ignoring it. There are new eyes on wrestling, and it’s because of what’s happening in the ring for a change.

This, however, is where the practical, logic-driven part of my brain starts to object. If you’re wondering what that part of my brain looks like, picture the sludge monster from FernGully with the voice of Jim Cornette. It mercilessly tramples on fun by shouting down things that don’t make perfect sense. Basically, it’s the little voice in my head that was trying to convince me that The Force Awakens was just A New Hope with a fresh coat of paint before my inner child took over and let me enjoy the movie. If we let practicality take over, we start to see a lot of things wrong with this picture. It’s too choreographed, it’s just a display of gymnastics, Ricochet takes a satellite rana straight to the top of his head and shrugs it off because he has an important flip to execute. There’s any number of complaints that stem from the concept of pro wrestling ostensibly being a realm of combat. If the end goal of a match is to incapacitate your opponent to the point of pinfall or submission, why are we somewhere between a capoeira exhibition and the climactic breakdance fight from Zoolander?

Fittingly enough, if there’s any clarity to be found here, it’s from NXT general manager/final boss William Regal. He was one of many to weigh in with his opinion, and he brings up a point that I think we’re quick to forget:

“When I started the job in ’83 a lot of the older fellas used to say that Marc Rocco and Marty Jones (who were the real pioneers of the CW [cruiserweight] style) had killed the business because they did too much. Although they may not admit it anymore, most of the heavyweights in Europe thought the brilliant lightweight and middleweight wrestlers were bad for the job because their style was “not believable enough”… Every country I worked in before I came to the U.S. had different styles and ways of doing things. As long as there’s effort then it’s right. If the people paying you are happy and you get reactions, then make your stuff as good as it can be with what skills you have.”

This conversation we’re having right now? It’s been done before. Pro wrestling, like any entertainment media that came before it, tends to be cyclical in nature. It can suffer through low times, and it can flourish in a new renaissance. We’re not the first generation of fans to contemplate what’s killing the business, we’re just the loudest. Our ever-shortening attention spans are forcing wrestlers to captivate us right off the bat, and now we’re starting to see just how far the pendulum can swing toward the area of “pro wrestling as action movie.” Just remember, in 1983 there was probably an old man that got so furious at a Johnny Saint monkey flip, he left the venue cursing and shaking his fists.

Wrestling has something in common with art and pornography: There is no clear-cut, 100 percent correct definition of what it is, but you’ll know it when you see it. When you see Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay, you might see something that has you begging for more, or you might see something that disgusts you. I think Best of the Super Juniors 2016 will be remembered for years to come as the tournament that opened up the dialogue on what cruiserweight/junior heavyweight wrestling could be if we insist on setting a high bar for ourselves. I am not here to deliver the verdict on whether this was a good match. Instead, just take these points of wisdom with you:

– New Japan Pro Wrestling continues to deliver some of the best wrestling in the world, regardless of weight class or skillset.
– Not all junior heavyweight wrestling is just Flips For Days. Some of the best ground-based technicians in the world are juniors.
– The Ricochet/Ospreay match was not 100 percent flips from start to finish. That would be ridiculous. Don’t judge a book by the cover, and don’t judge a match by one GIF.
– This is an entertainment product. If people left the building entertained, it was a success.

At the end of the day, we’re arguing about Pretend Underpants Fighting. It’s the coolest thing in the world and it’s the silliest thing in the world, all at once. It’s wonderful and frustrating and beautiful and scary and all-encompassing. It’s pro wrestling, and it’s here to be enjoyed. Puroresu ikou ze.

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